Monday, October 17, 2016

PM said no chest-thumping, but election planners ignore that sound advice. It's not a good omen

In just a couple of weeks, "surgical strike" has become a magical phrase in India. It radiates with patriotism and national pride so much so that Hindi media uses it untranslated. The phrase of course has nothing to do with surgery or hospitals or doctors; surgeons don't "strike" at patients. The way things are going, probably it has nothing to do with generals and jawans either. It has become so politicised that it now denotes political action politically conceived for political exploitation.

Prime Minister Modi was the first leader to recognise the negative nature of the politics that developed around India's military operation against Pakistani terrorist bases on September 28. As a propaganda war raged over the operation, the atmosphere was vitiated by allegations and counter-allegations unbecoming of a mature nation. What's more, it detracted from the valour of the armed forces. Recognising the unhealthy nature of this pow-wow, Narendra Modi told his people to avoid "chest-thumping" over the military strike. That was sound advice.

Strategically and diplomatically, too, it was wise not to go boasting. Having gained the immediate objectives of the strike, public bragging can achieve nothing militarily while it can generate vengefulness in the enemy. A humiliated enemy will focus on retaliatory action, especially when it has the advantage of non-state actors at its beck and call.

Modi was careful enough to follow his own advice during his much-awaited speech at the Dussehra function in Lucknow. He said Ravana was "the first terrorist" of the world, but did not go beyond that. He did not dwell much on the strike against Pakistan and, more significantly, did not accuse previous governments of not carrying out operations of a similar nature against targets in Pakistan.

But once again the more enthusiastic BJP ideologues have chosen to ignore Modi's advice. (On an earlier occasion, when he had condemned cow vigilantes as anti-social, the vigilantes had the gumption to turn around and condemn him. On Dussehra day, RSS chief Bhagwat chose in effect to chastise Modi by saying that cow protectors should not be mistaken for vigilantes). This time the momentum of politics, accelerated by the approaching elections in Uttar Pradesh, seems to have propelled ideologues towards rejecting the prime ministerial guideline.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh himself looked like he was carried away by the enthusiasm of the Ramleela crowd at Lucknow. In an obvious reference to the "surgical strike", he said the "Prime Minister has proved to the world that India is not weak". Defence Minister Parrikar went completely political. Earlier strikes during the UPA regime, he said, were border skirmishes carried out by local teams; only the latest action merited to be called surgical strike. He said the big credit for the decision went to the Prime Minister.

In a few sentences in his Mumbai speech, he turned the Prime Minister's advice on its head, gave the armed forces a minor role and sharpened the enemy's enmity to a point that cannot do us any good. He did a double chest-thumping -- how his government took action previous governments did not, and how the latest action has damaged the enemy's psyche. His words bristled with bravado: "Pakistan was given opportunities to build relations. But the response was not forthcoming. It turned into a predictable pattern which has been broken by the surgical strikes".

We can imagine how these words would be seen in Pakistan. There will now be no scope for talks of any kind unless the Prime Minister goes out of his way to undo the damage. Sections of the electorate in India will of course feel an adoloscent thrill. BJP leaders have announced that the surgical strike and the uniform civil code will be the main weapons in the UP election campaign. Is that what it all boils down to? Our jawans risk their lives fighting terrorists only to help a political party win a few votes? Can short-term political calculations override long-term national interests?

Modi's position against propagandising the strike against terrorists in Pakistan must have been a carefully considered one. He must have realised that war with Pakistan was not an option. Only negotiations against a background of international collaboration of a meaningful nature -- on economic and trade programmes for example -- can show a way forward. This becomes all the more obvious with the increasing involvement of Iran, Russia and China as well as the US in the area. If domestic politics determines external relations, India will lose more than it gains.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Artists do not die because the world needs art; Arakkal gave us pleasure by painting pain

It is not for nothing that every Rajnikant movie is released with uproarious publicity brouhaha, from milk abhishekam of oversize portraits to trailers exploding with the hero's superman feats. Marketing is everything. For film folk, it is the magic line between life and death. But the principle behind it applies to writers, artists and musicians as well.

M.F.Husain became India's most famous artist by being in the news always. He was of course one of our best. But so was Souza, so was Tyeb Mehta, so were Hebbar and Ara and Manjit Bawa. But none of them plunged headlong into controversy as Husain did with, for example, his portrait of Indira Gandhi, during the Emergency days, as a tiger-riding Durga. Then the Hindutva brigade did him a favour by vandalising some of his works and forcing him into exile, thereby making him even more celebrated.

Yusuf Arakkal was of the opposite kind -- quiet, gentle and undemanding despite holding strong views. He was aware of the importance of pushing your way forward. His preferred term was performer. Like Picasso, he said, artists have to be performers. He wasn't one because it was not in him. Belonging to what may be called the post-Husain generation (or, should it be the post-Bombay Group phenomenon?), Arakkal ploughed his own furrow. He produced no genre of his own. His work focussed on the evocative faces of ordinary people, on themes such as loneliness and gloom. He was unabashed in his admiration for his heroes -- the masters of European art ("the greats," as he called them) and the genius novelist of his native Kerala, Vaikam Muhammed Bashir; a typical Arakkal series is devoted to Bashir characters.

The dramatic mass of Tyeb Mehta's colourations, the majestic contrasts of Husain's blacks and whites, the violent liveliness of Souza's distortions, even the elegiac eloquence of Amrita Shergill -- no, Yusuf Arakkal would have none of these. He would choose colours and contours that brought out the desolation of city life, the darkness of marginality, the anguish of human struggles. Arakkal had experienced poverty and loneliness and dejection when he roamed the streets of Bangalore looking for a living. Only after he got a welding job in HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) could he think of doing an art course in the Chitrakala Parishad and gaining experience as a print-maker in a Delhi studio.

Arakkal's choice of Bangalore must have been by happenstance. It was a pensioners' paradise, while the artists' paradise was Bombay. Transformation began in 1970 when Gurudas Shenoy took the initiative in organising "Karnataka Painters". Arakkal was in the original team along with S.G.Vasudev, Balan Nambiar, Milind Naik and others. K.K.Hebbar as chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi gave a boost to their efforts. Today Bangalore is a thriving centre of modern art, so thriving that galleries have come up in impressive numbers, obviously making good profit out of art shows, art sales and related art business.

Although one of the pioneers of the art movement in Bangalore and always in the front row, Arakkal seldom played the activist's role. Vasudev, for example, floated Artpark, a voluntary movement that enabled interested people to collect in a public park one Sunday a month and exchange ideas with established masters. He also started Ananya Drishya to expose school children to art. Balan Nambiar ran an informal art school in his flat for years, giving children tuition in drawing and colour mixing.

Arakkal did give time and attention to young aspirants. But he was happiest when he could bury himself in painting portraits, in depicting scenes that expressed his inner conflicts, his hopes, his pain; the artist succeeds when his pain translates into the cognoscenti's pleasure. Like Balan Nambiar, he ventured into media other than paint, stainless steel for example; his early days as a mechanic in HAL must have come in handy. But he did not diversify as Vasudev did with art direction in movies at one end and tapestry art at another.

In the end, though, he surprised everyone by jumping the queue of life and departing ahead of his colleagues when he had just crossed the 70th marker. But this is one case where Death will not win. Yusuf Arakkal will mock it from galleries across the country and beyond. And he will be there to greet every arriving passenger at Bangalore International Airport with his mural, The Flight, a masterpiece in glittering steel, shaped and angled to take off any moment. Death, where's they sting?

Monday, October 3, 2016

A new America faces a new cultural revolution; Trump reflects world's shift to intolerance

Frankly speaking, the choice before American voters in this presidential election is depressing to say the least. Neither candidate has the ennobling, inspirational dimension that made Barack Obama's entry splendorous, and John Kennedy's before him. The Clinton name is, to put it mildly, controversial; if Bill earned the nickname "Slick Willie," the commonly used adjectives for Hillary are "mean" and "phony" and "programmed". Donald Trump of course is the complete outsider trying to become the insider. His crude style is matched only by his reputation for real estate business tricks and his white-racist image. That this is all that the United States has on offer is an indication perhaps that the American Century is finally reaching its sunset stage.

It would be a mistake, though, to miss the historical importance of Trump's emergence as a political phenomenon. The world was astonished that a property tycoon with zero political experience could become the Republican Party's presidential candidate. Republicans themselves were astonished -- and many of them ashamed. The establishment wing of the party tried to stop Trump. They finally reconciled themselves to his candidacy when the threat of dire consequences to their opposition combined with the surprising groundswell in favour of Trump.

That groundswell has been attributed to various factors, ranging from the rise of a new middleclass in America with new grievances/aspirations, to a worldwide shift towards rightwing dogmatism and attendant intolerance. Before these new developments the system was "orderly". Both conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and liberals such as John Kennedy could count upon a citizenry that was generally satisfied with their lives. The middleclass outnumbered the upper and lower classes combined and the economy was healthy enough to ensure a reasonable level of prosperity. America's status as a world power and a refuge of the oppressed came as a bonus.

Perceptions are different now. A Pew research study (December 2015) showed that the middleclass was no longer the majority in America. Its share in income had also gone down steadily during the past four-plus years. Simultaneously, no doubt urged by loss of jobs and the general fall in economic standards, the middleclass also started losing faith in the entrenched political system manned by scheming politicians, lobbyists, financiers and big-business cartels.

The moment was right for the middleclass to reject popular shibboleths about America's role in the world and start asking about America's responsibility to Americans. Trump was made for such a moment. The issues he raised resonated with growing numbers of disgruntled Americans. Why spend Americans' money on foreign aid? Why allow outsiders come and take jobs away from Americans? Why spend so heavily on military operations abroad when the result is ISIS?

When Trump raised such questions with his trademark flamboyance and loudness, the multitudes gravitated to him. His war cry, "Make America Great Again", was just what they wanted to hear. When he attacked Hispanics, Blacks, and alien entities like "the Chinese", white Americans were thrilled. His comments on immigrants and minorities and women were ultraconservative, retrograde and belligerent, but they were music to the ears of an enlarged audience of Americans disgusted with the conditions imposed on them by the politicians-business establishment. Trump saw his popularity rising.

But many Americans also found him vulgar, foul and opposed to the standards of decency they considered not only important but also American. The New York Times and the Washington Post led the powerful media segment that "endorsed" Hillary Clinton and published strongly-worded denunciations of the values Trump propagated. What has emerged is a divided America -- divided, not between liberals and conservatives as has been the case till now, but between liberals and nationalists of the dogmatic kind.

America may simply be reflecting a trend that has been evolving around the world. Sluggish economy and the convulsions created by the refugee influx from war-torn Syria have seen ultra-right parties gaining ground across Europe. The anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, protectionist National Front in France, the far-right Alternative for Germany party, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party in Austria, Hungarian, Polish rightwingers are all beneficiaries of the world's swing to illiberal doctrines.

That is why the Hillary-Trump fight will be a historically significant event and its eventual consequences unpredictable. The first TV debate between them saw Hillary winning comfortably. But it will be foolish to ignore the fact that Trump has risen this high despite being a "tax-evader" as Hillary charged, and despite calling women "slogs" and "dogs" and "pigs". America faces a cultural revolution and a political convulsion at once.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Pakistan poses problems too serious to be left to jingoist TV anchors and Sangh Parivar hawks

Patriotic quibbling will not hide the basic fact -- that Pakistan has boxed India into a tight corner. As happened in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack eight years ago, every muscle in our body politic twitches to take revenge against the rogue state. But a whole bunch of reality checks hold us back. Fortunately, the Prime Minister recognised this and resisted hawkish pressure from his own party parivar. That prevented the tight corner from developing into a trap.

By now diplomatic, political, strategic and security specialists have weighed the options open to India and unanimously rejected military retaliation. Many have openly admitted that India, despite having one of the finest fighting forces in the world, has not kept pace with modernisation and resources-building. We do not have the sophisticated paraphernalia to stage, for example, the kind of operation that enabled American SEALS to dive deep into Pakistan and get Osama bin Laden.

The idea of isolating Pakistan cannot go far either. The frenzied shoutings of our television anchors might give the impression that world powers have taken positions in support of India. What world powers have done is to condemn terrorism and sympathise with its Indian victims. Not one of them has mentioned Pakistan as being responsible for the attack.

Russia's statement is, as diplomatic statements go, the most sympathetic to India. But let us not forget that, following India's policy shift away from Moscow in recent years, Russia has signed various treaties with Pakistan. According to one of these, 24 of Russia's deadly SU-35 fighter jets will be delivered to Pakistan before this year is out. As for the US, India may have signed the logistics agreement. And some Senators may have moved resolutions against Pakistan. But Pakistan is recognised by Washington as a key element in America's plans to disengage from Afghanistan. It's clear that America will not be a friend in need for India as China would be for Pakistan.

Such nuanced shades of grey are no problem for jingoists of the black-and-white world, be they television superheroes or Sangh parivar pundits. One of the latter made a bombastic call: "For one tooth, the complete jaw". A problem with Sangh parivar hardliners is that their admiration for Israel leads them to believe that if you attack opponents harshly enough, you will eliminate them. More than half a century of harsh, often inhuman, Israeli attacks did not eliminate Palestinian resistance. In fact battling the sadistic Israeli forces has become a people's movement in Palestine. The sudden increase in popular resistance in Kashmir in recent months has been quickly seized by Pakistan as ammunition against India in international forums.

Israel does a great many other things without anyone knowing about them, and India can learn from some of those. One of them is that spy/intelligence chiefs must not make public pronouncements. When the last chief of Mossad expressed an opinion after his retirement, his diplomatic passport was taken away by way of punishment.

Two years ago, at a public meeting, Ajit Doval went into the details of India's options against Pakistan. One was: "You do one Mumbai. You may lose Baluchistan". On independence day this year, Prime Minister Modi virtually endorsed that line. We thus gave Pakistan all it wanted to know which way we were thinking and the time to start preparing its counter strategies.

Baluchistan is no doubt a festering sore for Pakistan rulers. But how far can India go to make another Bangladesh out of it? East Bengal was contiguous with India. Baluchistan is not. What's more, it is contiguous with Iran -- and Shia Iran will have its own views on Sunni Baluchistan becoming independent as there is a large number of Baluchis in Iran's south-eastern province. And why would Iran want to take the risk of supporting Baluchis for India's sake when India actively sided with America in the sanctions against Iran and, even now, seems none too enthusiastic about joint programmes like oil pipe lines?

In this bleak scenario, Modi did well by choosing a policy of strategic restraint. In the aftermath of the Mumbai terror strike, Modi had accused the Congress Government of doing nothing and said: "Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan's language because it won't learn lessons till then". The Modi Government now must talk to Pakistan in Pakistan's language. It must do so without addressing public meetings, keeping in mind the principle: The guerilla wins when he does not lose, the army loses when it does not win.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Can there be an India with State fighting State? Language destroyed a culture in Babylon

The Tower of Babel was built, and its builders punished, for specific reasons. The Hebrew-Babylonian legend identifies Nimrod as the ruler who ordered the construction. Overly confident about his power, he disliked people thanking God for everything. He wanted them to believe that it was their own effort and courage that brought them prosperity. To stop them from fearing God, he turned himself into a tyrant so that people would fear him instead.

This is logical political theory as we can see if we leave God out of it for a moment and look at Nimrod as a political boss competing with other political bosses. He wants people not to feel beholden to other party bosses, not to feel apprehensive about any leader but himself. He presents himself as the only master worth listening to. The spirit of rivalry is dramatically highlighted in the Jewish rabbinic version of the legend according to which the builder of the Tower said, 'God has no right to choose the upper world for himself, leaving the lower world to us. So we will build us a tower that is high with an idol on top holding a sword as if it is ready to war with God'. Exactly the kind of bravado our political bosses exhibit and their fringe warriors act upon.

Of course, no political chief so challenged will take it lying down. God had once tried to correct things by creating The Great Flood and allowing the survival of only a chosen few. They had grown into a united humanity, held together by a single language. But when they became proud and tried to challenge him, God decided to punish them again. Since annihilation by floods had not taught them to become god-fearing, God tried a different approach this time. He created a confusion of tongues among them. People could no longer understand one another because they spoke in multiple languages. Lack of understanding led to disunity and mutual suspicion. Scattered by linguistic division and unable to work together, people abandoned the Tower of Babel. Babylon became a synonym for ancientness, buried in the pages of forgotten history.

Many modern towers have since arisen -- from the Eiffel Tower to Dubai's Burj Khalifa -- all of them made possible by the unity of people in the countries concerned and the popular backing their visionary leaders enjoyed. Across the world, progress has been registered only when a leader's high-minded goals were accepted as such by the people whose support was never influenced by religious, provincial or linguistic differences. This is borne out by the stand-out achievements of recent history -- from the transformation of Germany from a war wreck to Europe's most powerful economy by a handful of statesmen beginning with Konrad Adenauer, to the transformation of Kuala Lumpur from a lazy village to a world metropolis in the span of a single generation by Mahathir Mohammed.

Fifteen prime ministers, scores of chief ministers and seven decades have not helped India achieve comparable progress in any field (except space research, praise be to the scientists). In key fields we have gone backward -- public health and quality of education, for example. Epidemic corruption has no doubt been a prime reason. But let us not minimise the role played by our disunities, religious and linguistic in particular. How can India progress when there are no Indians, there are only Tamilians, Kannadigas and Malayalis; Punjabis and Haryanvis; Bengalis, Assamese, Biharis and Odiyas; when even speakers of the same language split into Telengana and Andhra Pradesh?

Can there be an India at all when 56 passenger buses are burned down near Bangalore because they belonged to a Tamil Nadu company? Or when Woodlands, a Chennai landmark for years, is hit by petrol bombs because it had Kannadiga connections? Or when vehicles with TN registration are targetted in Karnataka and those with KA number plates attacked in Tamil Nadu? Assaulting pilgrims in Rameswaram was unforgivable because pilgrims are not Kannadigas or Telugus, but pilgrims just as Tamils going to Sabarimala or Kollur Mookambika temple are not just Tamils but devotees. Pilgrims deserve respect transcending race and language.

Violence solves nothing. It only produces counter-violence. Water-sharing among neighbouring states is a serious matter, best left to subject experts to work out, not to politicians seeking temporary electoral gains. If God has no right to choose the upper world, politicians have less right to work up passions for cheap applause. Leave it to the temporal gods of the Constitution.